I'm coming back to Cinematical after a bit of a hiatus, so I thought I'd start with something that's been on my mind. This morning Armond White's review of Machete -- in typical Armond White style -- claimed that anyone who enjoyed it was a moron. I like Armond's reviews, and that comment is more aimed at a reader response than at analyzing the movie, but he still misses the point. Machete isn't a movie meant to be absorbed by the mind, even though it does deliver a righteous message on the immigration issue. Rather, Machete is a purely physical experience, and it's a good one at that; it's currently on my shortlist of the best films I've seen so far this year.
What do I mean by physical experience? Let's start with perhaps the most basic appeal of the movies: they're like dreams. Humans have been dreaming in moving pictures and sounds for thousands of years, but moving pictures have only existed in reality for a little over one hundred years. No poetry, painting, opera, theater or anything else can remotely come as close to the mystery of dreams as cinema can. Dreams are personal; we get emotional and physical responses. They show us our greatest fears and our greatest desires. Sometimes they're just so weird we have no idea what they're about.
Movies re-create dreams. They're not specifically our own personal dreams, but there are things in movies that we recognize from our dreams. We recognize feelings and sensations. We recognize love, and laughter, and sadness, and fear, and even lust. Our dreams do not care about remakes, literary adaptations, adaptations from television, adaptations from video games, sequels, franchises, messages, Oscars, or anything that operates on a higher, thought-based level.
The trouble is that we deny these things in our movies, and always have. In a classic essay, the film professor Laura Mulvey pointed out three physical responses to movies: laughter, tears and fright, and she could also have included lust, or suspense. Comedies, action movies, weepies, horror movies, and sexy movies have always been popular at the box office. But when it came time to establish an institution to declare movies an art form, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences routinely ignored these types of movies. The Academy approved of movies that operated on a higher level of intelligence. These were movies that could be openly discussed in public.
In Luis Bunuel's movie The Phantom of Liberty (1974), the director included a hilariously surreal sequence at a dinner party. The guests assemble around a table, pants down, sitting on toilets. They talk, or read, or whatever. At one point, a guest politely excuses himself, goes to a private little room, and eats his dinner. Bunuel's point is that our little bodily rituals have been arbitrarily assigned their time and place. You can't do certain things in public. It's rude to laugh, and crying or being scared is a sign of weakness. Hence the Academy needed to be formed to police our movies, to make sure that they had a moral face. That way everyone thinks movies are OK to see and discuss in public, even though they can be intensely private experiences.
Without the Academy, and indeed without any other kind of measuring stick, movies might even be better than they are. People could sneak off and watch a movie if they needed a good laugh or cry, and not tell anyone. Movies would be more geared toward a physical and emotional response, rather than trying to fulfill a set of profitable criteria. As Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) explains in Middle Men, the porn industry makes billions each year, and no one admits to watching it. Certainly no one would admit to any of it being good, but almost anyone would admit to it being effective.
This is generally why I love horror movies and comedies above most anything else, and I even confess to enjoying the occasional romance or romantic comedy, if it can make me feel the endorphin rush of love. If these movies do their job, it's not just by accident. It takes a certain amount of skill and a certain amount of poetry to be able to capture an emotion during the long, complicated process of making a movie. If a movie comes out in theaters and it works, it's like a miracle. When I say that Machete, Piranha 3D, and Survival of the Dead are among my favorite movies of the year, this is mostly why.
But the other part of this theory is much more complicated, and it's the concept of personality. Personality in movies is even more rare than an effective laugh or scare. Aren't our dreams more powerful when we're dreaming about people we know and love? To me, it's the same when I watch a movie by a filmmaker I know. If I can recognize a certain style, touch or tone in a movie in just a few minutes, then I'm usually happy; which is another reason I love Survival of the Dead. If I sit down to a Romero, an Orson Welles, a Hitchcock, a Woody Allen, a David Lynch, etc., I'm usually rewarded by something familiar. It's like spending time with a friend.
Again, this is an intangible factor that is barely valued in Hollywood today. It's too hard to nail down, it's not profitable, and it has nothing to do with putting a moral face on movies. Impersonal movies are easier to make -- no pesky artists to deal with -- and they tend to appeal to wider audiences. Avatar is the perfect example; it's a message movie, delivered entirely above the neck, with no real physical or emotional impact -- aside from the oohs and ahs of the postcard visuals -- and it's impersonal and totally calculated, from the design of the aliens to the arc of the plot. Everyone can talk about it in public with no shame.
In dealing with personal cinema, most people view it as "the same thing again and again," which is then automatically viewed as a negative. Hitchcock never won an Oscar for this reason. He made movies with a purely physical response, no messages, and made the same type of movie again and again. Daily or weekly critics of the time must have sighed, "here's yet another Hitchcock movie, a lot like the last one." This also goes for actors. I have had many conversations about John Wayne, for example, and I always hear the same response: "he always played John Wayne." That's a simplistic way of looking at it. He played one type of character with little range, but with tremendous depth. With all his range, Marlon Brando could never have played any of John Wayne's roles as well as John Wayne played them.
I think most people view cinema as a scale that runs from top to bottom, with "great," intellectual movies at the top and gut-based movies like Piranha 3D at the bottom. Even if people seem to be enjoying Piranha 3D, no one would actually go out of his or her way to argue it as truly worthwhile. It's just "fun" and that's it. This scale is really a measure of what movies we admit to liking, and those we don't admit to liking. In a classic "Friends" episode, the characters play a trivia game. One of the questions is, "What is Rachel's favorite movie?" The answer is Dangerous Liaisons. The next question is, "What is Rachael's REAL favorite movie?" The answer? Weekend at Bernie's. The top, and bottom, of the scale.
I prefer to see cinema as a scale that slides from left to right, just like politics. You can be firmly on one side or the other. Some critics claim to hate horror movies and would never watch porn, and they stick with things like The Reader. My favorite movies, I think, are located at the absolute ends. At one end, we have the personal, poetic films, movies that can be taken as artistic masterpieces, stuff like, say, Mulholland Drive, In the Mood for Love or The New World. At the other end, we have the hardcore, physical films, the stuff that makes us laugh, cry, scream and moan. John Wayne, who is always John Wayne, would be at this end, along with Bill Murray (who is always Bill Murray) and Charlie Chaplin (who is always Charlie Chaplin). In the middle we have all the rest, the impersonal attempts to repeat previous box office successes and the impersonal attempts to repeat previous Oscar winners.
But movies are too organic and too alive to entirely staple down to such a line, and so we have ingenious things like The Hurt Locker that slide back and forth. To me, The Hurt Locker was a rare animal in that it was rooted in the physical, suspenseful intensity of war; it focused on the adrenaline rush. I praised it because it struck me as a skillfully made "B" movie, the way Samuel Fuller or Don Siegel used to make them. But many, many others seized on the topicality of it and claimed it as a "message movie." It thus became "important" enough to be considered for a Best Picture Oscar. This meant, of course, that people were watching it and ignoring their most basic responses to it, turning instead to a headier, more intellectual response. (The same goes for great movies like A History of Violence, No Country for Old Men and The Dark Knight.)
I supposed there's no way to change any of this. But each of us can be more aware of when a movie makes us feel something. Embrace the personal, and reject the impersonal. Embrace the gut-punches and reject the timid. Movies are private, yes, but they're also public. Be proud if you like something. Praise Piranha 3D! Praise Machete! No matter what Armond White says, you're not a moron. You're a human being.